Should DC take over local bus routes?
Except for five Circulator routes, all local buses in DC are run by Metro. What if DC took them over and ran its own, citywide bus system for the routes that don't cross into Maryland and Virginia?
At a recent meeting of the TPB Technical Committee, DDOT Associate Director Scott Kubly said DDOT is working on three ways to reduce the constant growth in Metro operating costs, which repeatedly forces more jurisdictional contributions that are tough to find, fare hikes, and/or service cuts.
One is to add bus lanes and queue jumpers to speed buses, which we've discussed repeatedly. Saving time on busy bus routes not only helps riders, but also reduces the number of hours Metro has to pay bus drivers. After a slow start, DDOT has made clear that they will actively pursue this.
Another is to make better use of taxi vouchers to cut down on the number of MetroAccess trips, each of which costs more than a taxi ride. If DC can encourage more disability-accessible taxis and find ways to move more MetroAccess riders to taxis without inviting abuse, it could save on the spiraling costs of paratransit service while maintaining necessary access for persons with disabilities.
Finally, according to Kubly, DDOT's contract with First Transit for the Circulator costs 30% less per hour than Metrobus, and Circulator drivers and mechanics are union-represented just like Metrobus employees. DDOT might be able to save money by converting most of the local routes to local control.
Back when each state had separate, private bus systems, riders crossing from DC to Maryland often had to transfer at the state line. This plan wouldn't return to those days since regional bus routes would stay regional and run by WMATA. And Maryland and Virginia already have transferred many of their own local routes to local bus systems.
Would this be a good idea? It has a number of advantages and disadvantages.
Cost. As above, this could save money. However, others have argued that the Circulator is just cheaper because it's a small system and because it employs more younger drivers. Make it large and wait a few decades, and the costs might just start to equal those of Metrobus. For example, the Fairfax Connector and Ride-On have similar cost structures to Metrobus. On the other hand, those aren't bid out to contractors like the Circulator is.
Greater local coordination around intersections, lanes and more. DDOT designs new streetscapes and handles signal timings, while WMATA runs the buses. Sometimes, DDOT wants stops in one place, and WMATA in another. Or WMATA wants a bus lane, but has to rely on DDOT. If one agency is handling both sides of the equation, the coordination can happen more smoothly, or at least there's a DDOT Director and a Mayor there to referee disagreements.
Greater local sense of ownership. For a while, it seemed like DDOT might not be prioritizing bus lanes as highly as streetcars because they controlled the streetcar project and not the buses. The Mayor and Council end up spending more energy on local transit they control rather than systems run by a much larger regional entity. If DC controlled the routes, perhaps buses would rise in the city's priorities.
Rationalize bus fares. Why is the Circulator $1 while Metrobuses are $1.50 ($1.70 without SmarTrip)? Originally, DC wanted to make the bus appealing to tourists and easy to pay for with cash. But we've ended up in the bizarre and unfair situation where on 14th Street for example, the bus that goes to the richer neighborhoods is a cheaper Circulator, while the bus to poorer neighborhoods is pricier.
Jim Graham has constantly fought against raising bus fares, but outer jurisdictions often have pushed for higher fares. If DDOT ran more local buses, it could revamp the fares, even making all buses $1 if it had the money.
More nimble decisionmaking. DDOT can move faster on making decisions, or at least they have in recent years.
Less regional coordination. The flip side of a more nimble process is that DC might plan the system with less regard for regional mobility. Just look at the Georgia Avenue streetcar, which ends in Takoma instead of Silver Spring. Even though regional bus routes would stay with WMATA, would DDOT do as much to plan a local bus route in a way that facilitates transfers for riders going to Maryland or Virginia?
More confusing for riders. To plan a trip, a rider now needs to consider a number of different bus systems. They're not always on the same map. One trip planner doesn't necessarily consider all of the systems. Technology and open data feeds can solve some of this, but there will still be some hurdles to understand the full system.
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